Reflections of a 4L: On EIP, Public Interest, and Other Career Decisions

IMG_2230Photo Illustration by Nelson Hua

Dearest 1Ls:

You are almost done with your first year! Congrats! As much as you would love to just kick up your heels and totally veg out, more work is around the corner. EIP is coming this summer and you have to prepare for it—or not. The first step is deciding whether you want to do EIP at all. In this brief space, I want to give you some thoughts to take into consideration as you make this decision and others throughout your career.

Disclaimer: The law school is full of chatter from people who have no idea what they are talking about. Everyone considers him- or herself an expert on legal careers and the legal field. No one (I’m talking about students) really knows much of anything until they get out there. I humbly submit that I don’t have all the answers either. So take my thoughts with a grain of salt, or as truth; I know at least as much as the next person.

1. Whether you do private sector work or go straight into public interest after graduation is not of paramount importance; what is important is that you make an informed decision. I’ve seen too many people do EIP and go to a firm just because everyone else was doing it or it seemed like the easiest thing to do. This is not the way to make a permanent career decision. Prior to law school, I worked at a non-profit organization that provides support for teen mothers. We had a curriculum called “Love Notes” that discussed how to have healthy romantic relationships. One saying from that curriculum that stuck with me was, “Don’t Slide – Decide,” meaning that you shouldn’t passively let relationships develop but instead should take ownership about your relationship decisions. I believe the same applies to your career and this EIP decision.

2. What do I mean by informed decision? I don’t mean listen to other 1Ls who relay something that their best friend’s cousin’s boyfriend’s roommate told them. Talk to actual practitioners! Talk to professors! Talk to alumni, young and old! By reaching out you can learn about what these lawyers actually do and whether you can envision yourself doing the same type of work. SJI and OCS can help with this.

3. Money is important. If you are going into public interest, you have to realize that the salaries are significantly lower than in the private sector. I am doing public interest right after graduation and I know that I will not make a lot of money. I wish that starting salaries were higher, but I accept the lower salary because I believe in the type of work that I will be doing. For me, knowing that I can positively impact marginalized people’s lives with my legal skills is a form of compensation in itself. But that is not the case for everyone. That is ok.

4. On the other hand, if you think that money will be enough to sustain you while working for a law firm, doing work you hate, you are deluding yourself.

5. Other “big picture” things to think about: does the private sector work-life balance suit me? What motivates me?

6. Some of you want to do public interest eventually but may have to work at a firm for a couple of years before you make the switch. That is fine, but have a vision about where you want to go and what kind of skills you should develop while at the firm. How do develop such a vision? Talk to people! (See number 2).

7. This is for my die-hard public interest folks: let’s stop judging classmates who go to firms. You don’t know why they are going to the firm—they may be going to get a certain type of training, or they may need the money to support their families. I used to be very judgmental about this, but I am realizing that private sector lawyers reallycontribute significantly to public interest work through pro-bono and other activities. We are all in this together. Plus, I am counting on some of you private sector folks to donate to the non-profit that I start in the future. (See number 3). I’m totally serious. Expect a phone call from me in 10 years.

8. You are privileged. Of course, we know this because we go to the #4 law school in the country etc., etc. But think about it: many people in the world have absolutely no choice over their careers. The child of the poor farmer will grow up himself to be a poor farmer. We actually can choose what we want to do. And if one thing doesn’t work out as expected, we can try something else. I repeat, you can choose to try something else. Remember this when you want to complain.

9. Relax. Maybe you won’t get the big, fancy firm job after doing EIP. It is not the end of the world. You still have a lot of options. It will take some work but don’t be discouraged. Take closed doors as an opportunity to explore other paths or develop skills that will help you open those doors. Don’t let the EIP process define your self-worth. You are not worthless because you didn’t get a call back.

10. Some practical things: Create a LinkedIn Profile. And for goodness’ sake, get a decent headshot for your profile (not a Facebook pic). At SIPA (I’m also a SIPA student), we are required to have a LinkedIn profile. Also, a lot of people at SIPA have business cards. It may be pretentious but I like it – it beats writing your email address on a napkin. Vistaprint has them for $10 dollars. Or you can get fancy ones from Columbia.

I could go on and on, but I just want to suggest that you should use this summer and your whole law school career to think meaningfully and creatively about your career. Don’t let this be a burden. It is an opportunity!


Stephanie Amoako has gained the moniker “4L” by spending four years at Columbia, working on her degrees in law, international criminal law, and international affairs. When she is not studying, she enjoys reading blogs, cooking, and spending time with family and friends. 

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